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Picking The Brains Behind Voltron, Merciless And Dejah Thoris

Picking The Brains Behind Voltron, Merciless And Dejah Thoris

I recently had the chance to interview the writers on the upcoming VOLTRON: YEAR ONE and MERCILESS: THE RISE OF MING series (Brandon Thomas and Scott Beatty, respectively), coming out in April 2012. Plus, I snagged a couple interior pen-and-ink illustrations from DAJAH THORIS AND THE WHITE APES OF MARS #1 artist Lui Antonio.

VOLTRON: YEAR ONE — Interview with Brandon Thomas

Picking The Brains Behind Voltron, Merciless And Dejah ThorisBC: We're familiar with VOLTRON as a story about giant robot lions fighting cosmic battles with Robeasts. In VOLTRON: YEAR ONE, however, the action is on a more human level, reading like a military black ops mission. Where did the idea come from to go in the new direction?

Thomas: The choice to go in that direction is really an extension of some of the things we're doing in the main series. One of the phrases I kept repeating in the pitch was "making the term space explorer actually mean something" and really push this idea that the characters are highly trained and capable adventurers, pilots, fighters, and soldiers, who are only made even more dangerous by their robot lions. Year One allows us to push that idea forward even more since they haven't quite encountered Voltron yet, even as they're inevitably pulled in his direction.

BC: How would you describe your history with the franchise? Were you always a fan of the series, and are there any special memories you have from watching the show?

Thomas: Big fan of the original as a kid, and it was one of my favorite cartoons growing up. And I've definitely been tapped on the shoulder by that kid a few times while working on this, and never more so than the first time I wrote the classic transformation sequence. It's something that we build up to in the main book, and the entire time I thought I'd be revising a lot of it, making it more contemporary or whatever, but end of the day, I couldn't do it and left much of it in its original form. Really glad I did it too, because as a kid that little two minute or so sequence was SOOO important to me and from the second any episode started you're just counting down to "when are they gonna form Voltron!?" And seriously, what's the greatest made-up word in the history of the English language…? It's "dynotherm," no question.

BC: When I was a kid, Sven was the mysterious team leader who disappeared after a few episodes — and thanks to that, all my friends thought he was the coolest (kind of like the Boba Fett effect; limited screen time lends to idol worship). Did you feel the same, and do you view his increased role in VOLTRON: YEAR ONE as fan service based on that?

Thomas: I always liked Sven too and thought he got a bit of a bum wrap so Allura could be more seamlessly integrated in the main story. So when the idea of doing a "prequel" series came up, I quickly settled on the idea of putting Sven at the forefront, because of his upcoming role in the main title, and I didn't want to deliberately contradict many of the events in that original arc of episodes, while at the same time telling a story that would flesh out the characters a little more. We know that by the time this group is sent after Voltron, Keith has been given the reins, so the obvious question is, how did that even come about? What does Sven do that effectively leads to a demotion of sorts for himself, and on top of that, why does his squad, given all of the available alternatives, draw the Arus Assignment? It all seemed fairly random in the original, and I wanted to provide a very clear justification and rationale behind everything.

BC: Keith seems to have a more idyllic view of what Space Explorer Squadron #686 should be. Can you please expand on how he views their role in the service?

Thomas: Well, I think out of everyone he's the most idealistic, and he has a very immature, naive impression of what the space explorers are actually doing out there in the universe. Some of it is most certainly in the best interests of the entire galaxy, to promote peace and harmony on worlds that maybe have never known it in their entire history, but some of it is an "Earth first" mentality that we'll soon learn has permeated certain elements of the Galaxy Alliance. And when he's forced to stare down a level of corruption and impropriety that he wasn't aware existed, his feelings are going to shift a little bit. But he's young, with a very inflexible idea of right and wrong, and he's going to begin learning the ways of the world very soon… and how to keep more than a few secrets.

BC: Pidge always struck me as an oddity — he seemed too young, too childish, to be a part of the Voltron Force. In YEAR ONE, however, you've provided him with an interesting background and a key part in the mission. How do you view Pidge as part of the team?

Thomas: I love Pidge and I agree that he always seemed like a complete mismatch for a team of much older space explorers, so I wanted there to be a clear reason for that. I wanted to dig in and ask, "How does a guy as young as him make it through the S.E. Academy, and how much of an absolute badass does that make him?" He's smart, he's fearless, and despite his young age, he's not afraid to get his hands dirty. He shares some similarities with Jack Warning from my MIRANDA MERCURY series, along with some of Damien Wayne, Barry Ween, and Doogie Howser.

BC: For the mission in VOLTRON: YEAR ONE, what are the strengths and skill sets that Lance and Hunk bring to the group?

Thomas: Lance is described in the first issue as a blunt instrument and that's really what he is most times. He has no qualms about the things they're doing and believes wholeheartedly they're for the greater good. He's intensely focused and can follow an order without question, but deep down, he thinks he should be the one giving orders and ultimately that's what he wants…to advance through the ranks and one day run his own squad of S.E.'s. He thinks he's "the man" and takes every possible opportunity to prove it.

The easy classification for Hunk is the gentle giant, but I think he's a lot more than that and I'll be going out of my way to carve him a more nuanced role within the dynamic. Out of all of them, he's the one with the least to prove to himself, so he's a little more balanced and well-adjusted. Everyone else seems to have a chip on their shoulder about something, or some huge emotional burden to bear, but Hunk is the one that's got it all figured out. He can be whatever the situation calls for, whether it's a violent brute or a thoughtful technician, and there's a maturity and intelligence there that either some of the others haven't found yet or they have trouble taking hold of consistently cause of some deep-seated issues. He's able to get out of his own way, and that often sets him apart.

BC: Since the team won't be piloting Lion Mecha into battle for YEAR ONE, what other space-age technology will they use in their mission?

Thomas: If we can power through the first arc sales-wise, we'll be following that up with a modern re-telling of that first encounter with Voltron, so you might be seeing the lions sooner than it appears. And because this is space, and also set in the future, the opportunities to use and display all manner of glorious tech is definitely being exploited. Lot of cool ships and gadgets are coming down the line, along with some updated weaponry that's been a lot to fun to figure out the workings of. Two things to keep your eyes on are something called "dominos" and the concept of falsified DNA. Both of these things come into play in big ways in upcoming issues, and I love being able to create things like this that either could never exist or won't exist for another 50 years.

BC: When writing the YEAR ONE script, did you have a very distinct vision for how the artwork should look, or did you have general ideas that allowed artist Craig Cermak to interpret in his own way?

Thomas: I didn't have a really clear idea, and Craig has been more than willing to get in there and put his own visual stamp on things. We've known each other a long time, and I've been following his work and the progression of it all through his graduation from the Kubert School. Because of that we're working very closely on this, and he has carte blanche to create the look and feel of the tech the guys are using, as well as the alien races that'll be showing up very soon. Like with anyone I've been working with a few months, the scripts are getting less and less detailed in terms of describing what everything looks like, and we're developing a nice shorthand where I can give a quick description of something with maybe one tiny visual reference, and he's able to take that and knock it outta the park.

This is his first big comics project, and I want him to have fun and be able to draw things that are interesting, exciting, and at times challenging. Every page is better than the last and folks are going to be plenty impressed once they get their hands on the book.

BC: Corporate espionage plays a large role in setting up the YEAR ONE story. Were there real-world influences on the decision to make corporate and political influence a part of this series?

Thomas: It just makes sense that would become an important aspect of building what is an intergalactic coalition. You think for a second that if we discovered new planets with new beings that had never seen iPads before, it wouldn't be long before we figured out a way to sell them there? Commerce and money powers everything, and there's really no other way that Earth could maintain its prominence and influence without certain financial advantages that possibly other planets don't enjoy. Space exploring ain't free, and this perfect storm of economics, politics, and military action quickly produced a number of great directions for the stories, and it just felt appropriate to settle in and have some fun there.

BC: YEAR ONE stories typically reinforce crucial themes for the intellectual property, providing defining moments in the character's background that impact their later actions and attitudes. What are the themes explored in VOLTRON: YEAR ONE?

Thomas: Sacrifice. Responsibility. Idealism. Pragmatism. Failure. Self-doubt. Compromise. Destiny. Honor. Loss. Pain. Victory. Love. Devotion. Those, and the realization that some problems can only be solved by shooting them in the face before they shoot you in yours…

MERCILESS: THE RISE OF MING — Interview with Scott Beatty

Picking The Brains Behind Voltron, Merciless And Dejah ThorisBC: How did you become involved with the MERCILESS project?

Beatty: Ming handpicked me to write his biography. He really liked my previous works and thought I was a talent deserving of wider recognition. But seriously, I've been working with Dynamite for several years now and was asked to imagine Ming's "formative" years. Dynamite President Nick Barrucci and Editor Joseph Rybandt have been very good to me with some very challenging projects. I never turn them down.

BC: MERCILESS provides a background for one of science fiction's most iconic villains. How would you describe the young Ming, before his robes and iron-fisted rule?

Beatty: Young Ming learns quite quickly that Mongo is held together by a very tenuous thread. It is his birthright to rule, and he aims to have it all sewn up as quickly and neatly as possible.

BC: What defines Ming's role as a prince, and the relationship between him and his father, Emperor Krang?

Beatty: Krang is old and Ming has little respect for age… or paternal relation. Ming's great ability is to define weakness around him, the chinks in all the armors, and he uses that knowledge to advance himself.

BC: The FLASH GORDON universe has so many fascinating races: Sharkmen, Lion Men, Tree People, Hawkmen, etc. Is there any in particular that you find most fun to write? What do you like best about them?

Beatty: Oh, I'm having a fun time with the Sharkmen right now. They're a bit obsessive/compulsive, always on the move, and always hungry.

BC: What is the power structure on Mongo? How do the many races / delegates rate in relation to Krang and Ming?

Beatty: Think of Mongo as a confederacy of houses under the central rule of Krang. At the start, there are quite a few tenuous and archaic truces keeping a very loose peace. It's messy and disorganized and Ming absolutely HATES that.

BC: What are your thoughts on the FLASH GORDON film from 1980, a box office failure but subsequent cult classic? Has it influenced your writing of MERCILESS? Also, aside from the 1980 film, what other FLASH GORDON media have you experienced, and are there any that play a particular role in how you craft your story?

Beatty: I've thoroughly enjoyed many "box office failures." Critical acclaim or out-and-out fun don't always translate to ticket sales. I saw the film as a kid and I've come to know Flash Gordon through other genres, particularly comics and animation. I was quite a fan of the Filmation animated series from the late Seventies / early Eighties. I think the whole of FLASH GORDON stories — at least the ones I've read or watched — play a role in my overall "feel" for the universe, but Ming's backstory is more of a "whole cloth" approach. Very little has been done to explore his pre-Flash history, so we're free to delve pretty deep into the darkness. I think my approach to this universe is a pastiche of all of it, but heavily influenced by the current canon laid down in FLASH GORDON: ZEITGEST.

BC: In reading your script, I noticed many references to real-life people: Brian Blessed as Vultan, Mae West as Qroze, and Uday Hussein as Ming himself. Do you often draw inspiration for characters from particular actors and public figures? Are there any other MERCILESS characters you feel were influenced by such people?

Beatty: I think I mentioned Uday Hussein in an early pitch in order to compare young Ming to the type of privileged and depraved prince-in-waiting who has unfettered access to anything he wants, anytime, anywhere. It's not just power that corrupts absolutely, it's never having to hear the word NO. I'm often loathe to compare a character to a real person. Comics companies have been sued for rendering characters to look too closely like celebrities. Blessed played Vultan, so that's the look I was recommending to the artist. More often it's a certain attitude or bearing (i.e. Qroze and Mae West) that I'm aiming for rather than a spitting image. Luckily, Alex Ross does most of the character designs, so in this and my previous projects with him, I have a pretty concrete idea of what the characters look like as I script.

BC: In pulp adventure fiction, heroes are so often defined by their villains, and vice versa. In MERCILESS, there is no Flash Gordon to counter Ming. In writing this story, has the hero's absence provided you with a challenge to overcome, or have you found it liberating to work outside the "hero vs. villain" structure?

Beatty: Think of it more of antagonist and protagonist. Fiction doesn't always need a hero. Sometimes the main character is the villain. Ming has his own laundry list of foes, so it's up to the reader to decide who might be worse, Ming or… King Selak of the Sharkmen, for instance. But make no mistake. Ming does nothing out of altruism or munificence. He's in it for Ming. And I've never found a Narcissus or greed-motivated character to ever fill a hero's shoes.

BC: Will MERCILESS lead directly up to the events preceding FLASH GORDON: ZEITGEIST? Or will there be room between the MERCILESS origin and the FLASH GORDON series for more Ming solo stories?

Beatty: MERCILESS leads up to ZEITGEIST, but there's no overlap or meeting at the border. MERCILESS provides insight into what's occurring in ZEITGEIST, but Z. is driving the bus in terms of the larger FLASH GORDON universe. Ming's story can be read independently, but I think all of us involved regard it as "added-value" to the FLASH GORDON franchise. So, with that open window, I'm more than willing to tell more of Ming's dirty little secrets before or after MERCILESS.



And enjoy the DEJAH THORIS AND THE WHITE APES OF MARS #1 interior pages, which I believe you can't find anywhere else.

Picking The Brains Behind Voltron, Merciless And Dejah Thoris

Picking The Brains Behind Voltron, Merciless And Dejah Thoris

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